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One of a Kind

From the June 21, 2004 issue: Nine reasons the world would have been different if someone else had won the 1980 election.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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NINE MEN ran for president in 1980. Nine big issues would be decided by whoever won: taxes, monetary policy, the air traffic controllers' strike, deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, missile defense, Soviet communism, anti-Communist wars of liberation, tax reform, national spirit. Ronald Reagan took a bold approach, consistent with his conservative principles, on all nine--and won. Three or four of the other candidates, if elected, might have acted similarly on a few issues, but not on all nine. That is why the election of Reagan mattered so much and why the world was changed so dramatically for the better as a result.

The other candidates were President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy, both Democrats, Republican senators Howard Baker and Bob Dole, House members John Anderson and Phil Crane, former Treasury secretary John Connally, and George H.W. Bush. Carter and Kennedy and probably Anderson would have decided differently from Reagan on all nine issues. Crane, Dole, and Connally would likely have come the closest to matching Reagan--but not that close.

Let's look at the nine:

* Taxes. With a large budget deficit, would any of the candidates have held out for a 25 percent cut in tax rates on individual income? Probably not. Carter and Kennedy opposed tax cuts and Bush called Reagan's plan "voodoo economics." Baker, Dole, Connally, and Anderson were not noted tax cutters. Crane? Maybe. Baker, as Senate majority leader in 1981, was queasy about the Reagan cuts, calling them a "riverboat gamble." Now we know the consequences of the cuts, a rejuvenated economy. Reagan was right.

To discredit Reagan, economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times noted that Reagan twice raised taxes. Krugman also made this point to zing President Bush for sticking with his tax cuts. Reagan, however, kept the cuts he'd proposed, plus one measure--indexing--which had been added on the Senate floor. For the most part, the tax breaks he wiped away had no incentive effects and had been tacked on to his original proposal. When Reagan took office, the top income tax rate was 70 percent. When he left, it was 28 percent. Tax raiser? Hardly.

* Monetary policy. Remember "stagflation," the simultaneous presence of high inflation and stagnant growth that, in the Carter years, seemed intractable? It wasn't.

To eliminate inflation, Reagan allowed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to crunch the money supply and cause the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Republican and Democratic politicians insisted Volcker should let up. Not Reagan. He didn't utter a peep of protest.

Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson called Reagan's hands-off approach "one of his greatest triumphs." Indeed it was. Reagan and Volcker touched off two decades (and counting) of low inflation. In other words, permanent low inflation. "No other major leader--Republican or Democrat--would have then done what Reagan did," Samuelson wrote last week. Exactly right.

* Air traffic controllers' strike. Reagan surprised the world, including the senior White House staff and his cabinet, by firing the controllers, who had violated their legal and personal obligation not to strike. More than any decision in Reagan's first year in office, this action provided a huge clue about Reagan: He was not to be trifled with. And that's exactly how Reagan saw it. "This episode was an early test of my administration's resolve," he wrote in 1989 after leaving the White House. "We had the choice of caving in to unreasonable demands while keeping our air traffic system operating without incident, or of taking a stand for what we thought was right with the risk of throwing the system into possible chaos. I felt we had to do what was right." He refused to hire the controllers back later.

* Pershing missiles. Germany had promised to accept the American missiles in 1983 to checkmate Soviet SS-20s targeted on Western Europe. But the Soviets, millions of peace marchers in Europe, and a popular "nuclear freeze" movement in the United States mounted strong opposition. Nonetheless, Reagan ordered the deployment of the Pershings, and the Soviets promptly stormed out of arms control talks in Geneva. Washington went into a tizzy. Reagan's aides feared he'd be stuck with a reputation as a warmonger. Of the Soviets, Reagan said confidently, "They'll be back." Soon they were, ready to negotiate a treaty on eliminating their SS-20s. Would others have had the nerve to carry this off? Not a chance.

* Missile defense. This was the greatest bargaining chip of all time. The Soviets were deathly afraid that their entire offensive missile force would be neutralized by what Reagan called his Strategic Defense Initiative and critics called Star Wars. American doubters said missile defense was a fantasy, but Reagan believed missile defense could provide a shield over the entire United States. He was adamant about pursuing it.

A moment of truth occurred at the Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Gorbachev was prepared to eliminate all nuclear weapons--his own and Reagan's--if Reagan would give up the development of missile defense. Reagan refused. Instantly the Soviets, especially Soviet generals, realized they'd lost the Cold War. They couldn't keep up an arms race. Reagan had broken their will, and undermined their faith in their system. Reagan alone could have done this.

* Communism. For more than three decades, the bipartisan policy toward Soviet communism consisted of containment and détente. The idea was to keep the Soviets from expanding the Communist empire and coexist peacefully with them. As Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said, America was Athens, the Soviet Union was Sparta. The only hope for America was to work out a deal with the Soviets.

Reagan thought otherwise. He stood the policy on its head, tossing aside the postwar consensus and seeking to defeat the Communists and roll back their "evil empire." Few Americans felt this was possible, but Reagan said in 1982 that communism would wind up on the "ash heap of history." He did everything short of war to ensure that result. Reagan, the boldest of hard-liners, succeeded where others wouldn't have tried. He said he simply "began applying conservatism to foreign policy."

* Wars of national liberation. These had been the chief means of enlarging the Soviet empire. It was one thing to oppose this type of expansion, as the United States had. It was quite another to seek the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. And it was a still bolder leap to support anti-Communist wars of liberation to take back countries lost to Communist takeovers. It was beyond the imagination, much less the inclination, of the State Department and the political establishment.

Carter had aided Afghan rebels against Soviet occupiers, sending them pre-World War II rifles. Reagan stepped up the support many times over, sending Stinger missiles. In Nicaragua, he backed the contras, a coalition of peasants and remnants of the old Somoza regime. Liberals and much of the world fumed at the policy, but Reagan didn't flinch. The Soviet empire shrank before collapsing altogether in 1991. Reagan alone had foreseen this.

* Tax reform. Who thought this would happen? Practically nobody. The standard practice was for presidents to talk up tax reform, then abandon the idea. That's what Carter did. The conventional wisdom in Washington was that there was no constituency for cutting rates, repealing special interest loopholes, and broadening the tax base. Reagan comprised a constituency of one, which turned out to be sufficient.

*National spirit. That Reagan, more than anyone else, drove away the gloomy, defeatist mood of the 1970s is a fact. We have this on the authority of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who praised Reagan last week for leading "the great cause of cheering us all up." Given his optimism and eloquence and storehouse of upbeat anecdotes, this now seems like no big deal. But who else could have done it? John Connally perhaps? John Anderson maybe? Howard Baker? A reelected Jimmy Carter? These questions answer themselves.

A half century ago, philosopher Sidney Hook drew a distinction between an eventful man and an event-making man. The key difference is that while both may arrive at a fork in the historical road, the event-making man helped to create the fork. The event-making man also "leaves the positive imprint of his personality upon history--an imprint that is still observable after he has disappeared from the scene." That's Reagan exactly. He not only seized opportunities successfully, he created them. This puts him in a class by himself among postwar presidents. And it reflects well on the wisdom of the American voters who chose him in 1980 over eight rivals for the presidency.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.